Monica Attard: It Wasn't Milne's Job To Sack Guthrie For Doing Hers

The brutality of Michelle Guthrie’s sacking was galling.

The social media pile on by ABC staff was gobsmacking and sometimes downright cruel. You didn’t have to like Guthrie’s tenure as managing director to show basic humanity.

But how extraordinary would it be to see the worm turn and ABC staff strike in support of ridding the corporation of the man who sacked Guthrie, Chairman Justin Milne, who, it has been leaked, ordered Guthrie to sack Economics Correspondent Emma Alberici for her contentious (and corrected) trickle-down economics analysis, because the government was unhappy with it and her.

ABC Chairman Justin Milne and former Managing Director Michelle Guthrie at the ABC Annual Public Meeting in Sydney, Friday, February 9, 2018. (AAP Image/Joel Carrett)

More extraordinary things have happened in Australian public life, to be sure. But this would be a messy and damaging turn of events.

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The chair of the ABC is a very specific role. Keep the board in order, help the corporation stick to its charter, provide advice to the MD when necessary -- but stay firmly out of the ABC’s day-to-day operations.

That Milne advised, even demanded that Guthrie sack Alberici over a story Malcolm Turnbull’s government didn’t like, whilst Milne was on the board on one of the companies Alberici cited in her piece, is breathtaking in its breach of chair protocols.

Journalist and ABC Lateline presenter Emma Alberici speaks during the PwC Federal Budget Breakfast in Perth on Thursday, May 11, 2017. AAP Image/Richard Wainwright)

I’ve not worked at the ABC for five years, and I have therefore not worked under Guthrie’s management. But after 30 years at the public broadcaster I can say with certainty that there has rarely been an MD who staff unanimously like. Nor is change management easy, especially so in a hotly contested digital environment.

This is not to say that all that Guthrie did was great. Clearly it was not: Larry as a mood booster was a stupid and indeed offensive idea, especially after nearly 1000 redundancies in two years. Not walking the corridors of the ABC’s Ultimo headquarters to learn what your staff do and why, another.

Making editorial suggestions to Four Corners that they should find happy kids on Nauru was palpably dumb, even for a non-journalist. I can’t attest to the claims that others make (including some who have never worked at the ABC) that Guthrie was rarely at work. But let’s assume all the marks against her name are true and correct.

Then let’s look at some of the reported positives.

She reportedly stared down Milne over Emma Alberici’s article and his demands that the reporter be sacked. This is verifiable at least to the extent that we have seen Milne’s email to Guthrie demanding Alberici be sacked and we know Alberici wasn’t sacked.

She refused to cave in to pressure on Andrew Probyn’s controversial report citing Tony Abbott as “the most destructive politician of his era”. There was no apology. Instead, Guthrie argued the ABC’s editorial independence.

Former ABC Managing Director Michelle Guthrie speaks to the Melbourne Press Club in Melbourne, Tuesday, June 19, 2018.  (AAP Image/Julian Smith)

Similarly, when Triple J decided to move its Hottest 100 music countdown from Australia Day to another day, Guthrie withstood the pressure from Milne and Canberra to pull the youth station into line.

She at least tried to strip down the ABC’s bloated middle management and turn those dollars towards program making. And though she is not a journalist, nor a program maker, her time at Google would certainly have given her a perspective on changing audience habits, the ones that broadcasters would like to ignore but sadly can’t. Trying to position the ABC to fight for audiences on digital platforms into the future is surely something to be supported, lest the corporation die on the petard of its own pride.

ABC personalities who publicly criticised Guthrie weren’t sacked or sanctioned. Jon Faine, the best and brightest of his class in Victoria, still broadcasts despite slamming Guthrie for her lack of public advocacy for the corporation.

Should it transpire that Guthrie was sacked for defending the ABC against the pressures being brought to bear on it and her by the chairman, then all the vitriol this week, the yahooing that she was gone, will look lame at best. Even if Milne goes, temporarily or otherwise, then staff will need to question if they want to work with a board who supported him in summarily executing a managing director for -- wait for it -- doing her job!

It’s messy, to say the least.